National language failure

I sat in a lounge with two men, who grew up in the same district. As the outsider you would assume that I would have the most difficult time to express myself with the two.

Instead we had to use three different languages, and I was playing interlocutor and interpreter for them. These are men I work with in developing workable structures for our community, and we were struggling to tell what we felt.

An subordinate was trying to tell me her email, but the language was failing her.

And I was half bemused then. Now to think about it, it is just upsetting.

We can’t work if we can’t communicate – simply put, the national language policy has failed.

Most nations – which we compare to – have a basic ideas language. Scrap that. Even countries we don’t aspire to have that.

Filipinos are relaxed in talking to each other, and my sister calls me the other day to find out what is the Malay equivalent for “your sincerely” in the formal letter she is writing.

Where did Malay as the national language fail? (And yes, I have noticed that the entries in this blog are in English)

Separate but equal principle in education

The schools in this country are categorised by language, but the true division is race.

Effectively a person’s inclinations are forced by it.

Chinese school kids speak Mandarin and it follows.

The child might pick up or keep another language, based on what the parents do.

Some kids still retain languages if family and community assist. Persons in a family speaking Javanese in a predominantly Javanese area in Johor, may keep it.

But since schools are where kids experience formalised learning, the medium and environment dictates the spoken language.

The separatists argue that the syllabus is the same, therefore nothing is lost.

Yet the majority of students from Chinese and Tamil schools can speak in Malay, but are uncomfortable in holding a discourse in Malay.

The school changes

I’ve proposed previously for a single public school system. That is harder to do.

What is quicker is to have a large emphasis on verbal speaking assessments.

It is not good enough that you have your geography paper in Malay. You have to present your geography paper in Malay. This is when the issue of ‘need’ will lead to a natural adoption of the language.

Scores leading up to end of secondary school have to emphasise on verbal presentations.

Political parties

The parties in Malaysia have been race driven, and therefore by extension linguistically challenged.

Why would the members of MCA speak in a language other than Mandarin or the collection of dialects? It makes more sense that they speak in the language of the race exclusivist party.

Therefore they end up thinking of ideas, exchange them, develop philosophy in a particular language. Compounded is that they are considering ideas primarily for their language group.

So the language limitations and divides get even more pronounced.

The changes in the last year, have been difficult to input because of the previous structure we inherited.

When PKR got started it was a party with the numbers, but with a large language divide. The ex-Umno guys have no idea what ticks outside their old party, and the NGO sorts tend to be English speaking.

The former MIC and MCA types that joined the party, completed a pow-pow uncommon to Malaysia.

Which is where I was on that Thursday morning in the lounge. We were three party members, and now local party leaders, but could not get the ideas across to each other because of a language failure.

This is not to play up PKR, I am keeping the ideology out of this.

DAP and Gerakan struggle to shrug off their race-limited tag.

PKR is – at the levels I am involved at and observed – is daunted by the language separation, but it’s the first party to stayed this long on a Malay language party with all Malaysians track.

Mindful that many Umno divisions used to have their meeting in Tamil, English, Javanese etc.

A single language policy in a truly multicultural party is challenging, probably why they are rare.

TV and coffee

If Malay is the people’s language, why is it we don’t have a person looking decided Chinese, Iban, Indian or Kadazan with as a main actor?

The type of indie films which try to included are notable, but do not break into the main consciousness of Malaysians.

Our Malay medium TV and films are race exclusive, and in doing so shun non-Malay viewers. Having a token Indian with bad Malay is not the idea of inclusion.

Government funds TV and films, so it should fund those that attempt to provide a Malaysian centric story, with the normalisation of non-Malays in speaking roles.

The government has never been shy in controlling the message department, so how about a few stories about non-Malay families in Malay?

It goes a long way in normalising people to the way they should see people.

As it stands

Schools out – but I’ll use classroom term to surmise the state of the national language policy – it sucks.

Our schools, our political terrain and our idiot-box have all not worked in the direction of generating an emphasis to speaking in Malay.

It might be an accident, or it might be an insidious plan to keep the divides amongst the people using language.

After all language is what we use to distinguish people.

3 thoughts on “National language failure

  1. There are many factors as to why there is a problem with language in Malaysia. Firstly, there is a BM monopoly by Malays in the form of the DBP, the Malay media, arts and culture, and also our Malay-centric politicians. We’ve been in conflict about whether BM is a viable language for science and mathematics for a long time whilst ignoring the fact that neither our English nor Malay are strong in either casual, informal or literary terms. This is a political problem.

    Schools in Malaysia have always been made experimental guinea pigs in which the students and teachers inevitably end up making a net loss. The education ministers can just say, “oh, well. I tried to do something important for my career, but it didn’t work. At least I’ve got my kids studying overseas or in private schools.”

    There is also a lack of love for our language and culture of reading. There is so much focus on science and law and other more ‘lucrative’ paths for students that the fundamental elements to sustain a culture are not cultivated. “Who can make money with literature, humanities and the arts anyway?”. This is reflective of our post-colonial complex no doubt: we as a developing nation need to show industrial and monetary strength through whatever means possible even if that means measly government funds to support the local arts and literature.

    I still have trouble expressing myself in Malay sometimes. My means of expression (writing and speaking) were developed further from reading great novels in English (not even to a Shakesperean level, mind you!) and also critically (from academic writings for example) that have always been abundant in our colonial language.

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